An SOS for Mesoamerica’s rainforests

Five ecosystems, from the Mayan jungle in Mexico to the Darién in Panama, are key links in an intercontinental biological chain

bosques en mesoamerica
The endangered blue-sided leaf frog (Agalychnis annae) in a Costa Rican nature preserve; August 2022.Moises Castillo (AP)
María Mónica Monsalve S.

Being the Amazon’s little brother has its drawbacks. Often touted as the lungs of the world, the enormous Amazon jungle gets all the attention. But there are five large Latin American rainforests that are key to the survival of thousands of species: the Maya Forest (Mexico, Belize and Guatemala); the Moskitia (Nicaragua and Honduras); the Indio Maíz-Tortuguero (Nicaragua and Costa Rica); La Amistad (Costa Rica and Panama); and the Darién, between Panama and Colombia. These five Mesoamerican ecosystems are key links in an intercontinental biological chain.

Comprising less than 5% of the planet’s area, these ecosystems host an estimated 8% of the world’s biodiversity. With 210 million acres (85 million hectares) of forest, they provide a crucial corridor for species traveling between the American continents. This is why Oscar Núñez, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Five Forests project, says these ecosystems must be saved at all cost. “We need to intervene before they are destroyed,” he said in his presentation at the 2023 Latin American and Caribbean Climate Week (LACCW) conference in Panama City.

Núñez is concerned for several reasons. The five Mesoamerican giants, like the Amazon and other forests in the region, are severely threatened by the rapid spread of livestock ranches. The WCS estimates that 90% of the area’s deforestation is caused by illegal ranching. Núñez also says the current El Niño phenomenon might be as destructive as the one in 1997 and 1998.

A bulldozed path cuts through the forest to make way for the Maya Train in Akumal, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022
An earthmover slashes a path in the Mayan jungle for a new passenger train; Akumal, Mexico; August 2022.Eduardo Verdugo (AP)

There are parallels between the two time periods, like the dramatic large wildfires in Greece, Canada, Indonesia, Central America and Hawaii. WCS has data to reinforce empirical observations. In the five major Mesoamerican forests, rainfall has significantly decreased by nearly 23%. “We are in a rainfall deficit,” said Núñez, who urges governments and international organizations to sound the alarms and pay attention to the forests everyone else is ignoring.

“The five great forests of Mesoamerica — they compete (in a good way) with the Congo and the Amazon when it comes to resources,” said Núñez. “But they are crucial not just for the interconnection of species, but also for the Indigenous peoples who live in and take care of these forests.” Some have already suffered major damage: in the last 15 years, the Maya Forest has lost an estimated 25% of its trees; the Moskitia has lost 30%; and the Indio Maíz has lost 23%.

Yellow-throated Toucan, Ramphastos ambiguus, Canopy Camp in the Darien, Panama
A yellow-breasted toucan in the Darién jungle, Panama.Getty Images

Núñez is not yet sure whether the Darién, the largest preserve in Central America and the Caribbean (1.43 million acres or 579,000 hectares), will be affected by the growing influx of migrants traveling through the area. “The important thing is that the migrants don’t start crossing other parts of the Darién, because right now they just go through a small piece of the tail,” he said.

The WCS and other conservation organizations like ReWild and Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (CIAT) are now publicizing the crisis facing the Mesoamerican forests and reclaiming what can still be saved. Their goals include protecting 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of forest and restoring another 1.2 million acres. They are also combatting species extinction and illegal livestock ranches, which is the most challenging battle. Ultimately, the goal is to draw attention to these often overlooked forests, shining a light on their significance and value.

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